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Impact from using Khan Academy

Thu, 15 Sep 2011 13:30:00

by Shantanu Sinha

We received an email a couple of months ago from a young man named Mark Halberstadt.  In true Khan Academy style, he recorded a YouTube video for us to watch. 

His story is quite inspirational.  Mark is a student who had given up on Math and Science and thought he was incapable of ever pursuing a career in a related field.  He claims he was always a “C” student growing up and never had a channel to understand topics that interested him in engineering.  He found the Khan Academy in 2007 and started watching videos on Trigonometry, Calculus, and even Arithmetic.  He decided to go back to school last year to get a Bachelors degree in Electrical Engineering.  He finished his first year in college with a 4.0 GPA for the entire year, including perfect scores on his Calculus and Chemistry final exams.  He says, “coming from a background where my GPA graduating from high school was in the 2.0 range.   That never would have happened — getting a 4.0 GPA would never have happened without the help I got from the Khan Academy.”  He goes on to say, “It has helped me immensely.  The impact for me in my life…I see it growing exponentially over the next 20 or 30 years.” 

Students have always liked Khan Academy.  The YouTube comments Sal received when he posted his first videos in 2006 are what motivated him to keep going (creating over 2400 as of today).  However, it is still astonishing to see the impact our resources can have.  Of course, while Mark is thanking us, he deserves 100% of the credit.  He did all the work and took control of his own learning after the educational system left him behind.  We just played a small role in enabling him.

If there were only 1 student like Mark Halberstadt in the world, it would have been worth creating Khan Academy.  The fact that this could so easily scale to millions is what makes Khan Academy special.

Khan Academy seems to work well with supplemental learners like Mark, but how well does it work in schools?  We have always believed that a great teacher can take our resources and push learning to new heights, by better focusing on the individual needs of each student.   With the student mastering core skills on the computer, the teacher can leverage the classroom time for more engaging and dynamic activities such as project-based learning, peer tutoring, or lively discussion.

Last school year, we started piloting our platform in a few schools in Los Altos, California.  Our goal was to create better tools by directly observing how teachers and students interacted with our product.   Los Altos was a fantastic partner, and our team built out many significant features based on their feedback (e.g., student knowledge map, teacher dashboards, badging infrastructure, new exercises).   

At the end of the school year, we all knew it was a success.  Teachers could see a dramatic change in their students’ excitement and enthusiasm towards Math.  Students who traditionally struggled with the material were more confident and engaged.  Other students were challenging themselves to levels we never thought possible.  Common sense told everyone involved that we were on to something.   

We did not do a controlled research study.  In part, because our organization was only 5 people for most of the school year, and we were just trying to build something worth researching.  Things changed fast for us, and the system the students were using at the end of the school year was very different from the system they started using in November.

However, we were curious to see how they did on traditional assessments like the end of year CST exam.  It is not the ideal exam since it only tests performance on a narrow set of grade-level skills.   Many of our students were remediating topics they should have learned years ago, or challenging themselves with much more advanced topics.  None of these gains would be captured.   However, the CST clearly matters, so it is worth understanding how our students performed.

The initial results were quite promising.  Our pilot included a couple of 7th grade classrooms with students who typically struggled in Math.    We saw a significant improvement in this group.  The number of Advanced or Proficient students increased dramatically, from 23% to 41%

This was very heartening.  Usually, the performance gap widens with students who struggle in Math, particularly when they get to more advanced topics like Pre-algebra.  The fact that these students were closing the gap (non-pilot classrooms saw no significant change in their CST performance) was very promising. 

Our pilot also included a few 5th grade classrooms.  Los Altos is a high performing district, and these students typically do very well on the CST.  This year was no different, with 96% of the students in pilot classrooms scoring Advanced or Proficient.   While these are great results, they are not statistically different from the non-pilot classrooms in the district.    It turns out, in both pilot and non-pilot classrooms, the students were doing great on the exam and didn’t have much room for improvement.

However, we could see amazing things happening with the 5th graders.  A majority of students were attempting early Algebra, and many students were experimenting with Trigonometry and Calculus.  These students were excited, engaged, and loved being challenged.  Inadvertently, we highlighted a distinct but not often discussed problem with standardized, age-focused education.   Students performing at high levels are often not sufficiently challenged.  Teachers shouldn’t take kids who already know the material, and make sure they already know the material.  Teachers should be pushing and challenging the students to their full abilities.  Los Altos didn’t think everything was perfect because their students were scoring well on standardized exams; they saw significant value in creating an environment that was engaging and challenging for all students.

Based on these experiences, Los Altos has now decided to expand the implementation district-wide to over 40 more classrooms.  We are also working with a number of additional schools that represent different use cases (e.g., charter, independent, low-income, special needs) to understand how students react to our resources in these different settings.  This year we will also look into a better evaluation methodology that reflects learning gains across multiple grade levels.

We are completely convinced that our resources can have a huge impact on the learning process.  But why exactly does Khan Academy work?   Some people have a hard time understanding how online videos and practice exercises can make such a big difference.  Or they misunderstand what Khan Academy is all about.    

Putting videos on YouTube is just a small piece of the equation.   What Khan Academy enables is a fundamentally different way for students to approach learning.   Here’s my take on the many innovations we are bundling together into a coherent experience. This is what is really making the difference.

  • Students are free to learn anytime, anywhere
  • Students can jump to where help is needed most, and spend as much time as necessary to master concepts 
  • The content is short, fun, approachable, and easily digestible
  • There is a clear and continuous path to learning complex topics
  • Students feel an increased sense of ownership - they are learning, not “being taught”
  • The focus on core conceptual understanding ensures students build the necessary skills that are applicable in any curriculum used in schools
  • Interactive practice ensures concepts truly sink in
  • Rich data helps teachers monitor progress and provide focused support
  • Teachers are empowered to make their classroom experiences much more fun, engaging, and social, with less lecturing and more project-based learning and peer tutoring

We learned a lot this past year, and I suspect we will learn much more this coming school year.   The results so far have been promising.   However, in our view, we’re just getting started.  We got office space and started building a team only 10 months ago. We still have a long way to go to reach our vision for technology-enabled education.  

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